Lucky Them (2014)
Friday, June 13, 2014 at 08:52AM
Ian Simmons in Lucky Them [2014]

Folk and Run

Watching movies in a theatre is nice, but when it comes to preview screenings, there's a lot to be said for the home-viewing experience. Case in point: I paused Lucky Them thirty minutes in and waited until my wife could join me from the beginning. Megan Griffiths' indie dramedy struck me as the kind of quirky, messy-relationship stuff she and I both enjoy--though mostly in the realm of television. Full of witty dialogue and dryly comic performances, the first part of the movie was harmless fun and we had a few good laughs winding leisurely through familiar territory.

At minute forty or so, Lucky Them became something different, something remarkable. On a dime, writers Huck Botko and Emily Wachtel veered from the saccharine safety of predictability, speeding head-first into a climactic reveal that took my breath away and gave profound new meaning to everything that had come before.

Let me back up. Toni Collette plays Ellie Klug, a fading Seattle rock critic at a fading rock magazine called STAX. Her beleaguered, pot-smoking boss, Giles (Oliver Platt), is under pressure from his corporate masters to boost sales--or at least interest--and assigns Ellie to track down her ex-boyfriend/enigmatic folk superstar, Matthew Smith. He disappeared after a gig ten years ago, leaving only a note and rampant speculation that he'd killed himself.

Ellie's luck with men hasn't improved in the ensuing decade. Through a series of mix-ups and bad decisions, Ellie leaves behind wide-eyed young musician Lucas (Ryan Eggold) to hit the road with a guy she dated briefly after Matthew split. Charlie (Thomas Haden Church) is clueless, disgustingly rich, and has the personality of Peter Griffin and Mr. Spock's love-child (with glints of Ashton Kutcher tossed in for maximum obnoxiousness). He agrees to spot Ellie some money for her story, in exchange for filming the adventure as part of a community-college documentary film course he's just enrolled in.

For awhile, Lucky Them breezes along as an alt-rock/indie version of a mainstream romantic comedy. Ellie is the cold professional who just can't be bothered with a relationship--until a hunky, free-spirited younger guy strums a smile back onto her face. The movie then transitions into a wacky road trip, with Church essentially reviving his role from the 90s sitcom Ned & Stacey. The filmmakers toy with us a bit, presenting both Lucas and Charlie as possible heart-tugging-finale love interests. But unlike most movies Griffiths and company make the bold decision to bare all their protagonist's shortcomings--indeed, to suggest that these guys might be too good for Ellie, instead of the other way around.

There are two big surprises here--only one of which I'll really get into. About half-way through the picture, Ellie's search for Matthew takes a detour, and we're treated to a seriously unflattering exploration of her damaged spirit. She spirals down a chasm of self-pity and doubt, alienating everyone who remotely cares about her. In these moments, Lucky Them becomes blissfully directionless--or, more accurately, not so plot-driven. As Ellie and Charlie's oil-and-water friction evolves into something more honest, I was reminded of Julia Louis-Dreyfus and James Gandolfini in Enough Said. This film is a bit too cute in places where that one was real, but it's always nice to see characters (and creators) call each other to task, rather than gloss over deep flaws on the race to a happy ending.

The second surprise made me gasp. That's not an exaggeration, gang. I actually put my hand over my mouth and looked at my wife in disbelief when the filmmakers revealed the actor playing Matthew Smith. This information is probably on-line somewhere by now, but you won't get it from me. No, sir (or ma'am). All I'll say is that this crazy-famous movie star delivers his best performance in at least a decade--in a brief, powerful scene that is mostly meaningful looks with Collette (who, incidentally, is one of the best cryers in the biz).

I'm left to wonder if Griffiths' choice of actor is the ultimate meta statement about her film. It's as though she wants the audience to protect his identity as a means of allowing others to delight in its discovery, in concert and in contrast with Charlie's wish to delight in remaining anonymous. Regardless of the intent, I'm sure to remember Ellie and Matthew's reunion scene as one of the year's best.

I need to see Lucky Them again to figure out if it's just a really good film or a great one. Collette and Church create compelling, comedic figures who reveal flesh and blood beneath an ostensibly cartoon skin (and props to Eggold for cutting through the puppy-dog-eyed, perfect-guy cuteness to portray wounded assertiveness in just the right places). This movie is surprising, touching, and really about something. The more I consider the film's performances and themes, the less I'm bothered by its deceptively light start. As Ellie's best friend says towards the end, "There's a lot wrong with you, but the list is getting smaller."

Chicagoans! Lucky Them opens today at the Gene Siskel Film Center (164 N. State Street). Definitely check it out, and bring someone you love!

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